University challenge: Tuition fees must not be allowed to creep ever higher


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The Independent Online

It is no surprise to those who have watched universities being stripped of their funding, while still expected to offer an elite British education in a competitive global market, that undergraduate tuition fees are set to hit £10,000 a year by the end of the decade.

Higher education, in particular the sciences, has long been underfunded by government. The introduction of tuition fees in the late 1990s was essential to ensure that universities could maintain academic standards in both research and teaching while expanding their size to offer a place to all those qualified to study for a degree – a cohort which, happily, is still growing today.

Although there is no reason to oppose the charging of fees for an education which, for the vast majority of graduates, directly improves life chances and earning capabilities, it is important to understand the impact that rising fees has on personal decisions about university.

There are reasons to be cheerful. The introduction of a £9,000-a-year cap has had no discernible effect on the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to higher education, despite the fact more than three-quarters of teenagers say they are concerned about the cost of living as a student. That’s because the raising of the cap on tuition fees included a practical caveat: the delay in repayment means only those that have clearly benefited from their degree, by securing a job with regular earnings, are expected to pay back the cost of studying.

But two important matters are often overlooked: there is a disparity between the number of disadvantaged youngsters applying to university and those that take up a place; and, there has been a fall in part-time and mature students.

While tuition fees will play an important role in funding into the future, they should not be allowed to creep ever higher in the face of government retrenchment of its responsibilities. If students feel a university education is no longer worth the now substantial cost, the social and economic damage will be hard to repair.